The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t show. But more than 100 people fired up about perceived racial inequity in Denver Public Schools did.
Retired DPS teacher Cozetta Hammock-West led an impassioned meeting Monday night at the Green Valley Ranch Recreation Center, a Far Northeast Denver community hub, where a standing-room-only crowd shared stories of negative personal experiences in Denver schools or described reforms they believe are eroding the quality of education for minority students.
Organizers of the meeting originally told concerned citizens that the Justice Department would be present to document cases of discriminatory practices in the hiring and firing of teachers in Far Northeast Denver. Hammock-West said federal officials cancelled “at the last minute.”
It was unclear Monday night whether federal officials ever planned to attend. A story in Monday’s Denver Post said they were hosting the meeting but the newspaper later corrected the article to say department officials were neither hosting the meeting nor planning to be present.
Hammock-West said she and other former DPS teachers have a class-action lawsuit in the works.
“They target people of color to make up money or to have a scapegoat,” she alleged of DPS. “We were the last people hired in DPS – and now we’re the first fired.”
Stats confirm declining number of black teachers
In the past decade, figures from the Colorado Department of Education shows the number of African-American educators in DPS traditional and charter schools reached a high of 352 in 2002 and a low of 233 this past fall.
Data snapshot – Denver
- State figures show the number of black DPS teachers dropped from 299 in fall 1999 to 247 in fall 2009. During that decade, the total number of teachers grew from 4,075 to 4,579.
- The number of black teachers fell by 52 over ten years while the overall number of teachers grew by 504.
- District figures tell a different story because they do not include charter schools – district officials have no control over charter-school hiring.
- DPS reports 201 black teachers out of a total of 3,996 in fall 2008 and 217 black teachers out of 4,291 in fall 2010. That’s 5 percent of the teaching force for both years.
- The number of black students in DPS also fell from 1999 to 2009. Black students were 21 percent of Denver school enrollment in 1999 and 16 percent in 2009.
DPS officials have expressed a desire to see more minority teachers in classrooms.
District spokesman Mike Vaughn said staffing numbers for 2011-12 show 15 percent of teachers at the six FNE schools involved in an area reform effort there were African-American. In the spring of last year, 15 percent of the teachers displaced after staffing decisions were African-American.
“As a result of the changes at Montbello and its feeder schools, we have more students being served at those schools and an overall INCREASE in the number of teachers,” Vaughn said via e-mail. “And we have added diversity among the educators working in those schools.
“The families in the Montbello community had been underserved by their schools for decades. That needed to change. We’re working to bring them stronger schools, a more diverse team of educators, and greater educational opportunities for their kids.”
Jeannine Carter, who runs diversity initiatives for the district, was in the crowd “to listen” to community concerns. She also offered to provide data those in attendance might want from her office.
But one woman in the crowd said she’s tired of the district “listening” to their concerns, she said it’s time for DPS to take action.
Hammock-West collected information from those in attendance for inclusion in a class-action lawsuit. However, she said she could not discuss the lawsuit because she was under a “gag order.”
Angry group plans next steps
Even though no federal officials showed up, the crowd was undeterred. They plan to hold a strategy session at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the same place. Hammock-West said she would hire security personnel to escort anyone out of the meeting who was “here to demoralize us and stop the action.”
She and others in the crowd confronted Charles Robertson, a Montbello High School staff member, as being a district apologist and one of the people who wouldn’t be allowed to attend the next meeting. Robertson declined to make any comments to the group.
Rita Montero, a former DPS board member who lost a bid for re-election, urged those present to fight the closing of schools and demand that their school board members fight for them.
“Where are your board members?” Montero asked. “They should be the people who stand up for you.”
In response to a woman’s proposal that the group create its own charter schools and “lock out” the rest of the district, Montero said, “Charter schools take us back to separate but equal.”
Larry Borom, former chair of the Black Education Advisory Council, said he was meeting with some other activists to push for public hearings on racial issues in DPS. He said he planned to contact Congresswoman Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado.
“The Department of Justice is not doing what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “Our kids are being miseducated. Our kids need black teachers. Our kids need us.”
Borom said teaching has been a stepping stone to other opportunities for African-Americans for decades. But, he said, that pipeline seems to be closing in Denver.